Why Donna Brazile's Story Matters – But Not for the Reason You Might Think
Everyone knew the primary was rigged. The real question is: Why did they bother, when they would have won anyway?
Over the weekend, the Washington Post previewed passages from former DNC chair Donna Brazile's much-anticipated "blistering" tell-all book about the 2016 presidential campaign, Hacks. The piece written by Phillip Rucker originally included a passage that read as follows:
"Whenever Brazile got frustrated with Clinton’s aides, she writes, she would remind them that the DNC charter empowered her to replace the nominee. If a nominee became disabled, she explains, the party chair would oversee the process of filling the vacancy."
Later, the paper changed this and other passages, originally without an editor’s note. The new passage read:
"Whenever Brazile got frustrated with Clinton's aides, she writes, she would remind them that the DNC charter empowered her to initiate the replacement of the nominee. If a nominee became disabled, she explains, the party chair would oversee a complicated process of filling the vacancy that would include a meeting of the full DNC."
This was a significant change. It meant the difference between Brazile claiming she had unilateral power to change nominees, and claiming she had the power to start a discussion about changing nominees.
Hurricane Twitter naturally ran with the story about Brazile mistakenly believing she had unilateral power. There are countless examples, but for instance: here, here and here.
This became one of the key points of attack against Brazile, who is being loudly booted out of the Church of the Blue Establishment, mostly via social media condemnations.
There were other methods. Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson penned a denunciation on Medium that included his expression of disappointment that Brazile would allow herself to be used by our foreign enemies.
The "open letter" from the Clinton campaign was signed by about a gazillion people, in the style of one of those academic letters of disavowal that have become popular tools against professors with "problematic" ideas. It read:
"We were shocked to learn the news that Donna Brazile actively considered overturning the will of the Democratic voters... It is particularly troubling and puzzling that she would seemingly buy into false Russian-fueled propaganda, spread by both the Russians and our opponent, about our candidate's health."
This has become a popular meme: That even paying attention to some of the core charges in Brazile's book is tantamount to aiding the Russians.
Markos Moulitsas tweeted as much by way of an analysis of @SecureDemocracy's "Russian propaganda tracker," the social media tool of the Alliance to Secure Democracy. (The Alliance is itself part of a groundbreaking effort to build a bridge between modern Dems and Bush-era neocons, but that's another story).
When it came out that eight out of the top 10 trending topics on the "tracker" this weekend were about the Brazile-fueled DNC scandal, this is what Moulitsas said: "If you’re letting the Right and the Russians drive your agenda, then it’s time to rethink your approach."
The use of rumors and innuendo to gin up furious emotional responses through a community before facts and corrections can catch up; the use of letters of denunciation; the reflexive charge that dissenting thoughts aid a foreign enemy – does no one recognize this? Has no one out there read a history book?
The headline revelations in Brazile's excerpt in Politico were interesting. She wrote that she had promised to get to the bottom of whether or not, as leaked/hacked DNC files suggested, the 2015-16 primary race against Bernie Sanders had been "rigged."
The excerpt starts off with Brazile anxiously preparing to call Sanders to share the bad news: "I had found my proof, and it broke my heart."
Actually, what Brazile found were things we mostly already knew. The worst had originally been reported on by Ken Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf (then of Politico). The story among other things described how the national Clinton campaign used funds that by rule should have redounded to state Democratic Party offices.
Politico described this situation back then as "essentially… money laundering."
I wrote about this, too, after the DNC leak, believing that details about this were among the only significant things to emerge out of the otherwise tedious DNC leak.
The emails seemed to give weight to the charges in the Vogel-Arnsdorf story, which amounted to the Clinton campaign using state funds to make up for a shortfall at a time when Sanders was still viable and raising a lot of money.
But the idea that Brazile's book amounted to a smoking gun that the primary was "rigged" against Sanders is "problematic" in its own right, for two reasons:
1) That the DNC had things stacked against Sanders from the start wasn't secret. After all, the DNC wouldn't even let Sanders use their headquarters as a venue to announce his candidacy, way back in April of 2015. As the book Shattered explains it, DNC officials felt it was inappropriate to "give Sanders the imprimatur of the party." He made his announcement on a strip of grass outside the Capitol. He was never treated by the DNC as a real candidate, not from the first minute of his campaign.
2) But it didn't matter! Clinton would almost certainly have won the nomination anyway. As her proponents have repeatedly pointed out, the race wasn't that close. Even as a Sanders supporter, I concede this.
But that is what's so weird. Why bother monkeying around with rules, when you're going to win anyway?
Why not welcome Sanders and the energy he undoubtedly would (and did) bring into the party, rather than scheme to lock him and others out?
There are a lot of people who are going to wonder why so much time is being spent re-litigating the 2016 campaign. It sucked, it's over: Who cares?
It does matter. That race is when many of the seeds of what will be the defining problems of our age first began to be sown.
The rise of Trump and the crypto-fascist movement that crushed establishment Republicans is half of the story. The sharp move among many white middle American voters away from Beltway Republicanism toward something far darker and more dangerous crystalized in 2015-16. So it has to be studied over and over.
But there is an ugly thing on the other side that also began at that time.
This is when establishment Democrats began to openly lose faith in democracy and civil liberties and began to promote a "results over process" mode of political thinking. It's when we started hearing serious people in Washington talk about the dangers of "too much democracy."
This isn't about Hillary Clinton. It's about a broader movement that took place within the Democratic establishment, and spread rapidly to blue-friendly media and academia.
It's a kind of repeat of post-9/11 thinking, when suddenly huge pluralities of Americans decided the stakes were now too high to continue being queasy about things like torture, extralegal assassination, and habeas corpus.
In the age of Trump, we're now throwing all sorts of once-treasured principles – press ethics, free speech, freedom from illegal surveillance – overboard, because the political stakes are now deemed too high to cede ground to Trump over principles.
But this distrust of democracy began before Trump was even a nominee. As Brazile notes, it started within the ranks of the Democratic Party near the outset of the campaign.
It would have been a huge boon to Clinton's run if the DNC had welcomed not only Sanders but other serious candidates into the race, in the true spirit of what the primary process is supposed to represent – the winnowing of many diverse views into one unified message.
But the attitude in Washington is now the opposite. Primary challengers are increasingly seen as reprobates who exist only to bloody the "real" candidate. So they should be kept down and discouraged whenever possible.
As the campaign continued, and we saw both Trump's rise and results like Brexit, the "too much democracy" argument began to emerge even more, along with the embrace of techniques that would have horrified true liberals a generation ago.
In the last year, we've seen the blue-state establishment celebrate the use of the infamous FISA statute against American citizens, and the use of warrantless electronic surveillance against the same.
We've seen the ACLU denounced for defending free speech and we've seen sites like Buzzfeed celebrated for publishing unverified and/or slanderous material, usually because the targets are politically unpopular.
Liberals used not to believe in doing these things not only because they understood that they would likely be the first victims in a society stripped of civil protections (a school district forcing the removal of Black Lives Matter stickers is a classic example of a more probable future in a world without civil liberties).
No, they eschewed these tactics because they genuinely believed that debate, discussion, inclusion and democracy brought out the best in us.
The point of the Brazile story isn't that the people who "rigged" the primary were afraid of losing an election. It's that they weren't afraid of betraying democratic principles, probably because they didn't believe in them anymore.
If you're not frightened by the growing appeal of that line of thinking, you should be. There is a history of this sort of thing. And it never ends well.